Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

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Archive for June, 2017

The TNA storm in a tea cup

Posted by harimpeiris on June 28, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Island of 28th June 2017)

The Northern Provincial Council (NPC), its activities and politics, attracts far more national and even international level political attention than its counterparts in the other eight provinces, due to several reasons. Firstly, devolution of power is a core aspect of Tamil politics, secondly the Northern Provincial Council is and would most likely for quite a while continue to be Sri Lanka’s consistent opposition controlled provincial council and thirdly post war, there was international pressure to hold the Northern Provincial Council elections.

 

Therefore, the recent saga in Tamil politics where Northern Chief Minister, retired Justice Wigneswaren was almost removed by a motion of no confidence moved by a majority of the Northern Provincial Council, riveted political attention up North and to the chief protagonists in the crisis, namely the Chief Minister and Illankai Tamil Arasu Katchi (ITAK) leader and former general secretary Mavai Senathirajah. It took the wisdom and sagacity of TNA leader Rajavarothian Sambanthan, ably assisted by his trusted assistant, President’s Counsel M.A. Sumanthiran, to diffuse the crisis and restore a semblance of unity between the dominant ITAK and some of its smaller partners, affiliates and fellow travelers.

 

Chief Minister refuses to support TNA at the General Election

 

Now, the current situation with the Chief Minister was not the first time that there has been sharp divergence in policies and politics between the Chief Minister and the ITAK. The first instance was during the general elections of 2015, when Chief Minister Wigneswaren made the amazing public statement and took the political stand, that he would not be supporting the TNA at the general elections, since he must be above, or as a provincial leader, is it beneath the parliamentary political fray. Such a stance was unheard of either in Sri Lanka or abroad, you would not for instance have a Governor in the US, refuse to campaign for his party at congressional elections. The result of this act of political ingratitude to the TNA which had plucked him out from the cold and installed him as Chief Minster through the Party’s block vote, was that the TNA which secured five (5) of the seven (7) seats in the Jaffna district lost out on getting the sixth seat by just six votes and the beneficiary of that close call was of course Ms. Vijeykala Maheswaren of the UNP, which secured the sixth seat and the EPDP’s Douglas Devananda who came in seventh.

 

However, Chief Minister Wigneswaren did not strictly stay neutral in the general election fray. Three days before the poll he issued a statement calling upon the Tamil people to vote for Tamil parties that would support the Tamil struggle rather than compromise. This was both a break from his position of being supposedly recused from the process and left the Tamil polity in little doubt that he was criticizing the TNA and recommending the political alliance of the All Ceylon Tamil Congress (ACTC) led by the intransigent and anti-engagement Gajan Ponnambalam. But the Chief Minister learnt, a lesson he seems to have since forgotten that when he goes and acts against the ITAK / TNA, (the parliamentary elections were contested as ITAK since TNA is not a registered political party or alliance), he has no electoral currency, credibility or clout. The general elections of August 2015, were a rout for the Chief Minister’s preferred ACTC led non-engagers. For all Gajan Ponnambalam’ s rather extreme Tamil nationalist rhetoric, (his counterpart on the Sinhala side would be Wimal Weerawansa), his group secured just a little over five thousand votes in the entire Jaffna District getting less than one third of the over seventeen thousand votes secured by young Angajan Ramanathan, leading the UPFA’s rather unsuccessful effort under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Sinhala nationalism. The reality of the Jaffna District General elections of August 2015, is that the Sinhala nationalism of Mahinda Rajapaksa as represented by young Ramanathan on the UPFA ticket, had three times more attraction than the Tamil nationalism of the variety sprouted by Gajen Ponnambalam. This despite the Chief Minister’s misguided endorsement. Following the general election as well, many ITAK Northern Provincial Councilors wished to remove Chief Minister and once again TNA and the then newly minted Leader of the Opposition Sambanthan, demonstrated that he insisted on repaying evil with good by letting the Chief Minister remain.

 

The next action by the Chief Minister, against the ITAK was the formation of the Tamil People’s Forum (TPF) essentially the political refuge of those who were unsuccessful at the general elections of 2015. The Chief Minister instead of focusing on dealing with and ameliorating the effects of the conflict in the North, was busy trying to create and be an alternate voice to the TNA / ITAK in Tamil politics. Again, ITAK provincial councilors wanted to remove the Chief Minister, again TNA leader Sambanthan demonstrated how much Tamil politics had changed, the new democratic Tamil political leadership of the TNA / ITAK leadership of Sambanthan, Senathiraja and Sumanthiran are not willing to take action against their internal political critics. One hopes their political accommodation and graciousness, which turns Machiavelli’s theories on its head, would be electorally rewarded in time to come, not least because reconciliation in Sri Lanka requires the moderation and democratic credentials of the ITAK’s leadership of the Tamil polity.

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Fight of Good Against Evil

Posted by harimpeiris on June 19, 2017

By Harim Peiris

(Published in the Daily News of June 19th 2017)

 

The BBS, Gotabaya and the rise of the politics of hate

 

June 14th and 15th marks the third anniversary of the ant- Muslim violence at Dhurga town, Aluthgama in 2014, which left four Muslim men dead, over eighty injured, some seriously and massive property damages, to Mosques, Muslim owned commercial establishments and Muslim private residences. The attacks, then were a culmination of a process of anti-Muslim propaganda, carried out by extremist organizations, which sought to instill fear and loathing of the Muslim community among the majority community. To counter the fact that they were unable to whip up generalized communal violence, goon squads, like the brown shirts of the Nazi’s carried out attacks with absolute impunity. The police were silent onlookers to this tragic drama. The political fallout of this situation was that the Rajapakse regime lost any vestiges of support, they had with the Muslim community and in the elections of 2015, the Muslims were the single most monolithic bloc supporting President Maithripala Sirisena and the Yahapalanaya rainbow coalition. Which is why even in the August 2015 general election, the UPFA / SLFP election campaign under Mahinda Rajapakse, failed to elect a single Muslim MP to Parliament and SLFP Muslim leaders, M.H.M Fowzi, Hizbulla from the East and Faizer Mustapher, had all got to be accommodated on the National List.

The BBS and Gotabaya

 

The organization most often named as responsible for whipping up communal disharmony and hate mongering against religious minorities, is the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Its spokesmen deny they engage in violence, though their vitriolic hate speech, which can be construed as instigating violence is in the public domain, easily accessible to the police and the Attorney General’s Department. The politics and tactics of the BBS are worth an analysis. The BBS contested the 2015 General Elections to Parliament and even in their bastion of the Kalutara district, only secured about five hundred votes in the entire district and fared even worse elsewhere. Clearly, they have no electoral appeal among the Sri Lankan public and overestimate their public appeal, at least electorally. It is to the credit of the Sri Lankan voter, that we generally reject extremes and strengthen the more moderate center.

After the most recent wave of anti-Muslim violence, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a contested political heir apparent of elder brother President Mahinda and an aspirant to the SLFP leadership was surprisingly quick to disassociate himself from the anti-Muslim violence. It was surprising because at the time of his denial, no one had accused him of any involvement. So, one wonders, why he chose to put the hat on. However, in refutation of the denial, Cabinet Minister S.B. Dissanayake was to state that “Gotabaya Rajapakse formed, bred and maintained the BBS”. What is known about the BBS, in the past, is certainly that they had overt state patronage under the Rajapakse Administration. From a foreign policy standpoint, the BBS had established links with the 969-anti-Muslim movement in Myanmar and when the BBS chose to have a high profile national convention during the Rajapakse years, they received the Sugathadasa indoor stadium for their hate festival and invited Ven. Wirathu, the demagogue of Myanmar as the Chief Guest. All this was done with full state patronage, including PSD security and other state courtesies. Such was the Rajapakse regime.

Reconciliation and the rise of anti-Muslim violence under Yahapalanaya

 

On the contrary, reconciliation has been a key aspect of the Yahapalanaya Government’s agenda. Dealing with the effects and causes of our violent and conflict ridden past while ensuring non-recurrence and a sustainable and durable peace has been repeatedly a stated objective of both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickramasinghe. None doubt their sincerity and it is further reinforced by the rather obvious political dimension, which is that the minorities, both ethnic and religious, look up to, depend on and are a key constituency of the Yahapalanaya Administration. Hence, it is in the Government’s own enlightened self-interest to not allow the rise of anti-minority political violence on its watch.

It is only the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Rajapakse comeback project which stands to gain from a new wave of anti-minority violence. Domestically, hate speech, conspiracy theories and fear mongering within the majority community could radicalize the majority driving them in greater numbers towards the Rajapakse JO and its agenda of social division and its barely concealed racism, for partisan political gain. It is only the JO which stands to politically gain from the BBS hate mongering.

Furthermore, in the event that minorities are attacked and harassed under the current Yahapalanaya administration, they will lose faith in and grow disillusioned of the current government leaders, resulting in a loss of minority political support for Yahapalanaya. Hardly, what one needs when provincial council elections are due later this year. Internationally Sri Lanka is closely watched, because of our past history of decades of conflict and our stated commitment to turn a new leaf and chart a new course. It is certainly not in Sri Lanka’s best interest internationally, when we seem either unwilling or unable to nip in the bud and nab the purveyors of hate and the perpetrators of anti-minority violence.

A critique of Sri Lanka’s criminal justice system, in the past, has been our failure to protect our minorities. Whether it has been the perpetrators of the Aluthgama violence, the Trinco five (school children) or the seventeen ACF workers, violence against minorities has not really found judicial redress. During the war years, society perhaps accepted this in the rationale of ancient Roman Senator Cicero, that in the “fight of good against evil, the laws are silent”. However, post war, Sri Lanka can and must reform and have a new social compact between her government and her people, that the rights of all citizens, irrespective of their race or religion would be protected and promoted.

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